The Lady's Choice
by Andy Hollis
©1999 Andy Hollis -- all rights reserved
Not witches, familiars, nor even a dysfunctional family can thwart the admittedly convoluted course of true love.
The door to my room slammed open with a crash louder than my stereo. My sister, Elise, stood fuming in the hallway outside. Her cheeks flushed a dark red; her pale blonde hair fell in strands over her face, and any second I expected to see steam from her ears. She jammed her fists into her hips, and shouted.
"Must that noise be so loud?"
I waved the stereo's remote as a baton. "But it's Wagner. Can't appreciate all those Valkyries without the volume, and I picked it out just for you. Don't you ever knock?"
She walked over to the stereo and pulled the plug. "There. Don't you ever wear clothes?"
"What for?" I asked with a shrug as I sat back down on the bed. Irritating my sister was one thing I did to perfection.
"This room is a disaster. How can you live like this? And what's that?" She pointed to my new poster. Right beside my chart of all the world's cats I had hung up a picture of several endangered species.
Speaking very slowly I said, "That's a fox -- f-o-x, and the bird is a falcon -- f-a-l-c-o-n."
She winced. "I know what they are."
"Then why did you ask?"
"And what about that?" She pointed at the far corner of the room. Although we've had this fight every other day, she still had to go on. "Don't you have any shame at all? I'm the only kid in school who has a brother that's litter box trained."
I licked my hand. "I'm a cat. I like being a cat, and I am exactly what Mom has made me to be. You are just a dumb old girl, and if you don't like it you can take it up with her." I watched the blood drain from her face.
I may have gone too far. Although I'm fourteen and Elise is twelve, she's still a good head taller than me. She gritted her teeth and her cheeks turned from pale back to dark red.
"I'm telling Mom you said that. Just you wait, you stupid fur ball. You'd better get changed because we're leaving soon."
"I'm not going with you. Mom said. I've got 'Curse of the Cat People' and Midnight's counting on a hunt tonight. I hate those stupid meetings, and do you really think they will want me back after last time?"
She gave me a little grin. The corners of her mouth turned up as she held out her right hand and said a word of power. A dish of cream popped onto her palm.
I licked my lips as she placed the dish on the floor.
"Here, kitty, kitty. Get the nice treat."
"That's not fair, Elise." I dropped down to all fours and trotted over to the dish. By the time I took my first lap I had turned completely to cat. I let my tail twitch a couple of times, then sat back on my haunches to wash my face. One thing for Elise, she always fell for the "I don't want to turn cat" routine.
"Are you two ready yet," Mom asked from the doorway. "Elise, I told you to get him dressed. He needs to be human tonight."
"But it's a coven meeting, Mom. Boys aren't allowed."
"This time they are." Mom snapped her fingers and I stretched back to human shape.
"You promised I could stay home tonight. Midnight's counting on it."
"Then he will have to be disappointed. Mistress Hildegard herself has requested that all candidates and their -- chosen males attend the party tonight. You do remember her, Paul?"
"Nice lap," I said with a yawn.
"Which brings up the other subject. As far as anyone is concerned, young man, you are fully human and have never been anything else."
"Okay." I said with a loud sigh, and asked the girls to leave my room as I pulled out clothes.
I really hated being a part time human. I hated giving up the freedom I had as a cat, and I hated wearing human clothes. What a waste of time. I put on a white shirt and blue slacks and figured Mom would add the tie if she wanted.
"What are you doing?"
I turned around to scratch Midnight's head. "Sorry, Mom's making me go after all. Seems the head witch ordered it."
Midnight growled as his eyes flashed orange. He had been Mom's familiar for as long as I could remember. "I suppose she has no choice but she has broken many promises to me lately."
"You and me both. I'll be glad to get this over with. It's been ten years..." I let the statement drop. Better not to think about that... We lived, at Mom's choice, in a subdivision right in the middle of nowhere. The one road in cut through an old growth woods filled with birds, mice and the occasional fox. I knew them all from hunts that is when Mom relented and let me stay in cat shape as a treat. At the back end of the development was a long expanse of gullies and a dry wash that could have been a regular desert.
Mistress Hildegard, however, lived in an estate on the other side of nowhere and the drive seemed to take hours. I curled up on the back seat of the car as best as I could and slept.
I had been to many coven meetings as a cat, and I could always find a lap to sleep on. Now, I suppose, Mom wanted me to mingle -- not one of my strong points.
I graduated from the seventh grade before Mom pulled me for "home schooling." I did have a few friends -- well a couple of kids actually tolerated my company. Everyone else, including my teachers found me aloof. I really did not play well with others.
From everything I had read about witches, Mom's meetings were a real bore. They should call it a garden club or something - anything besides a black mass. No one ever did magic, and no devils or demons turned up for any wild orgies. I suppose the Underworld has better things to do than to listen to a bunch of giggling ladies trade gossip and sewing tips.
This time there were guys at the meeting. Sons and husbands of the witches that had no idea what was going on. Every witch had to pass an initiation before they were considered full members of the coven. Membership required that the witch transform a human (a male, of course, but not necessarily a family member) into something else permanently. Mom turned my father into a dog long before I was old enough to get to know him. Elise was going to turn me into a cat -- no surprise there.
Part of me wanted to warn every guy at the party what was going to happen to them, but I knew they wouldn't believe me. Besides Mom made it quite clear what would happen to me if I did, and the threat of living out my life as a dog was more than enough to keep my mouth shut. Instead, I found a supply of milk, settled down on a comfy sofa inside and waited for the party to be over. Since everyone else was outside by the pool I didn't worry about being disturbed. At least, for the first hour or so.
A young woman, rather pretty with raven black hair and eyes as green as my own, sat down on the sofa right next to me. If I could I would have been on her lap in seconds. "Hi, I thought I saw someone in here all alone. Not feeling sociable?" I shook my head.
She studied me for a moment with a frown on her face. "You're Paul, Melanie's son?"
This time I nodded. "That's right."
"I'm Beverly. Miss Hildegard is my grandmother, and she sent me to get you. It's no big deal," she said and tousled my hair. Despite myself I purred. "She just wanted to meet you."
"What for? I've met her lots of times."
"She did ask."
I sighed as I left my spot and followed Beverly to another room set up as a business office. Mistress Hildegard and another elderly lady sat behind a large desk. This one typed into a computer. "Grandmother, this is Paul. He says he has met you before."
"I'm sure we have," she said in a tone that dismissed Beverly back to the party. "Come in, child. Let me take a look at you."
The head witch let her age show. I stared back at the lady's snow white hair, and lined face. Her bright blue eyes glittered in the light. "Agatha, tell me what is wrong with this child."
The other lady glanced away from her screen and frowned. "He's a cat, mistress. In fact, the last time he was here he nearly caught your canary, knocked over your good punch bowl in the process, and yet you let him sleep on your lap."
I blushed. "Busted. I am sorry about the crystal, Mistress Hildegard. The bird was teasing me."
"He has a habit of doing that to cats," Mistress Hildegard said as her frown deepened. "You are a cat?"
"I was born human."
"I see, but now you are feline?"
I nodded again not seeing any point in lying about it for Mom. "I was Melanie's first child. From what I have been told she was so upset about having a son instead of a daughter she brought me home from the hospital and literally ignored me for days at a time. I would have starved to death but Midnight, our familiar brought in a female cat that has lost her kittens and she gave me milk. I don't remember what happened, but Midnight said I had lost so much weight and had shriveled in size so much it was easy for me to nurse, and easier still to turn me to kitten.
"He sealed my eyes, and I grew up as a cat. Mom didn't care until Elise was born two years later. Finally, she had a daughter to share her power, and for the first time, she remembered she had a son. When Elise turned two and Mom was sure she had the talent for magic she took me from Midnight and forced me back into human shape.
"I was four years old, then, and I had no idea I was human or even how to behave as one. I did learn, sort of, but it hasn't been pleasant. She lets me turn back into a cat sometimes, but I have to be Elise's subject, you know -- chosen male. Then I'll be a cat again forever, at last, and the next time I come over here I will get that stupid bird. Do you have any cream?" I asked licking my lips.
"Agatha, how hard would it be for Elise to turn this child into a cat?"
"About as hard as saying, 'Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.'"
My ears pricked up. "Yes?"
"How old are you, Paul. You said you were two years older than Elise?"
"Yes, I'm fourteen."
"Yet, you look no older than ten."
Agatha shook here head. "Melanie placed an age blocking spell on him. A transformation spell is more effective on younger children."
Mistress Hildegard nodded. "It would seem that Melanie stacked the deck in Elise's favor with this one. Disqualified. I'll have Beverly take this one to the kitchen for a dish of cream..."
"Yes," I said.
"But only if you promise to leave the birds alone."
Someone knocked on the door. A moment later Beverly opened the door for Mom and Elise.
"They were looking for Paul," Beverly said quickly.
"There you are," Mom said. "I'm sure he didn't mean to bother you, Miss Hildegard."
I'm sure Mistress Hildegard read the anxious look on Mom's face as easily as I could. "Melanie, did you think you could hide your magic from us? Beverly, would you take Paul to the kitchen for a dish of real cream? I need to have a few words with his mother."
I shrank out of my clothes and waved my tail in the air as I followed the girl away from the office.
"Melanie, what you tried with your cat is all but cheating. Elise will have the same opportunity to prove herself as everyone else, but not with Paul. Take the cat home and let him stay a cat since that is what he wants. Understood?"
"Yes, mistress," I heard Mom's voice sound subdued for once.
As soon as we returned home, Mom snapped her fingers and I turned back to human. She handed me the bundle of my clothes. "I am not finished with you at all, young man. Put these away and wait for me in your room."
I hugged the clothes to my chest. "Mom, I didn't say anything. Not one word. That lady Agatha knew I was a cat, and she even knew which cat I was. She remembered the punch bowl from last time."
"But did you have to tell Hildegard the entire story?"
"She asked me, and I was afraid she'd turn me to bird food if I lied. Oh, and thanks for that age spell. I really wanted to be ten forever."
"Are you going to let him talk to you like that, Mom?" Elise gave me a triumphant grin.
"No, I'm not. Bad cat -- bad, bad cat." I stared at her. Elise let out a giggle.
"I know I've never been a mother to you Paul. That was that gray tabby of Midnight's. I haven't given you anything at all for fourteen years, and I only thought of you as a means for Elise to enter the coven. I won't apologize to you -- you're much too much a cat for that. But I will give you this. You have been promised to Midnight since the day I took you back ten years ago. You will be a kitten again, and just that. You will not remember any of this time you spent as a human, and you will live out the rest of your life as a cat."
"Thanks, Mom," I said trying not to cry. For the first time I hugged her.
"Go on, wait for us upstairs." I ran up the stairs, dumped the clothes in the laundry bin, and I almost waltzed into my room. I have no idea what took so long, but the next thing I knew woke up on the bed trying to move my hands and feet. Moonlight filled the window, and I could see that my wrists and ankles had been tied to the bed. I tugged again.
Elise carried a silver tray into the room and placed it on my dresser. She wore a gauzy scarf around her neck that hung down to her navel and nothing else. At twelve there wasn't anything to see in my sister's development. I never minded her seeing me naked, but this made me uneasy.
"I know, you're playing 'Sabrina' and I get to be the cat. That girl on TV wouldn't wear just that. Don't you have any sense of shame?"
"You are so cute." She took a long silver dagger and made passes with the blade over a bowl of water on the tray. I could see the white light of power filling the bowl and spilling over the sides. She finished a chant, dipped the knife into the bowl and walked over to the bed. She started chanting again and let three drops of the charged water fall on me -- one on each nipple and the third on my genitals. I felt a tingle and watched as best as I could move my head as my nipples grew much larger, and I felt a sudden pain in my groin.
"Now who is the dumb old girl," she said with a note of triumph.
I laughed. "You really don't get it, do you. Humans are the only ones that make a big deal whether you're a boy or a girl. It doesn't mean anything to cats at all. I'll grow up to have Midnight's kittens? So what?"
"Oh, you smug little bastard," she said. I could see the dagger shaking with her fury.
"You're too young to know such horrible language. I'll tell Mom what you said if you don't hurry up and get on with this. Just think, tomorrow it will be your job to clean my litter box and to feed me and take care of me, and I'll sleep on your legs every night..."
Elise screamed. "Shut up. Just shut up."
"What on earth is going on here?" Mom asked from the hallway. "By the Moon and all her sisters what did you do? These spells aren't something to be played with. All you had to do was turn him into a cat -- not a girl." She stared down at me. "You would have been such a pretty girl, too. What a pity you had to be born a boy. You have the brains and no talent and she has the talent and no brains. Elise, you go and get ready for the next round. You will turn Paul into a kitten and let me know the minute it is done."
"Yes, mother," Elise said and stormed out of the room. I took my smaller wrists out of the ropes and sat up. I tried not to look at my new body contours.
"This was her idea," Mom said with another shake of her head. "What a horrible waste." She left the room.
Elise came back five minutes later, and started a different chant. "Think Balinese or Siamese if you like. Something elegant."
When the white glow from the water was ready Elise brought the bowl over to me. This time she splashed water on my face then chest. She shouted a last word of power, then laughed as I started to change.
Something was wrong. I watched my hands change but they weren't cat's paws. Black fur changed to orange as it covered my arms. "Can't you get anything right?"
Elise laughed again. "This time I did, I really did. You're not going to stay here and lord it over me -- oh no. You're a fox, Paul. That's f-o-x. A vixen and they need one at the downtown zoo."
My muzzle grew in long and pointed. I tried to say anything but all that came out were loud and sharp yips. I barked my head off after that as I bounced around the bed in an unfamiliar body.
Elise gave me a smug little smile and left the room. As soon as she did I felt another's presence. I spun around using my nose but saw nothing until she spoke. "This change is unacceptable."
I saw her, then, or her outline; the transparent figure of a lady dressed in long green robes. Her expression looked serene as she looked down at me, and stroked my head. "So, master cat, now you are a fox, and a vixen at that," she said, gently.
I found my voice again, but the words still sounded like growls. "Can't you turn me back into a cat?"
"Not without killing you. This spell was improperly cast. Your body needs a chance to settle into this shape and heal from the magic. There is much you could learn from the fox."
I stared up at the radiance from her face, and nodded my head.
"What? No snappy retort for me? Perhaps, you are learning even now. Your sister will pay the price for this, and soon, but you are a fox for the time being."
"For how long?"
"For a year. Give yourself time, and if you can resist getting pregnant as a vixen, I will be able to change you again if you wish it."
"I will." I said as a promise to both of us.
The lady faded out as Mom and Elise returned. Mom screamed. "What did you do?" She turned and slapped Elise across the face. "I told you this was nothing to play with. How dare you?"
"But Mom, he was being so insufferable I had to do something."
"He's a cat, and all cats are insufferable. All you had to do was turn him into a kitten and that would be the end of it. Now what do we do with a fox? Midnight... You stupid little fool. I told you he was promised to Midnight. You broke the bond."
"Get real, mother. So I broke a promise to a cat. I couldn't let Paul get away with this."
"What is the definition of a familiar?"
Elise sighed, and started to repeat the words. "'A familiar is a demon or other spirit bound into the shape of an animal or bird to help its chosen witch work magic.'"
"You broke a bond to a demon, girl. Can't you think these things through?"
"By the Shadow and the Light," Midnight said popping onto the bed. "What did you do to my kitten?"
"You know how Paul and Elise have been at each other lately. She was trying to teach Paul a lesson for being so annoying. This may not be as bad as it looks. Elise, what did the Lady say when you cast this spell?"
"The Green Lady, of course, the guardian of... You did ask the Lady's permission to change your brother into a fox, didn't you?"
"What lady? I just found the spell and read the words. It didn't say anything about a Lady."
Mom shuddered. "How many times do I have to tell you that magic is not something that can be played with. You have to understand the spell that you are casting."
"I know what the Lady said. She said I had to stay a fox for a year, and if I don't get pregnant she can change me back. She said the spell was so poorly cast that she couldn't fix it without killing me." I glared at Elise.
"No," Midnight yowled out. "He was promised to me, Melanie. Even a female cat would have been better than this. She broke the bond, witch and she will have to pay."
"What are you talking about? I don't have any money."
Midnight spat at her. "You took away my son. I would have you take his place but you do not have the intelligence to be a cat."
"Or a witch," Mom said slowly, shaking her head. "You will have no initiation now, or any power ever again."
"Your life is mine to dispose of now, girl. I haven't decided what I will do with it, but I'm sure Mistress Hildegard wouldn't mind another canary for her collection."
"You can't be serious. I'm sorry I didn't read that spell closer, Mom, but I was just so mad."
"That is why you will never make it as a witch. That's the problem. I made everything too easy for you. I never gave you any reason to learn how to think. I wanted you to succeed so much that I never let you fail. Now you did, in a big way, and I'm stuck without a son or a daughter for the next year.
"When the Lady returns you to human shape next year, Paula, you will have this one as a subject. You, at least, will have the intelligence to be a witch."
I shook my whole body. "I'm to be a cat, Mom, you promised and so did the Lady. I may be female right now, but I'll never be a witch."
"You will do as you're told, Paula, and this is final. For the next year you will be an exhibit at the Downtown Zoo. Maybe that will be enough to change your mind about your future." She pushed Elise out of the room.
"I'll visit you," Midnight said, and turned away. I could swear he was crying.
Although I didn't sleep much that night, by the next morning I did feel comfortable with the fox shape. Foxes were quick, and they could jump, but not nearly as well as a cat. No male fox would ever get close to me.
Midnight walked into the room through the door for a change. My nose told me instantly he had a mouse with him.
"Breakfast?" I asked as I jumped down from the bed.
He dropped the mouse on the floor but held it fast with one paw. "Your sister. I wanted her to start her new life right away. I'll let her turn back to human for school, but the rest of the time I'll play with her -- that is if I don't forget and eat her."
The mouse squeaked out several times.
"Oh, Elise, you are so cute, and not even litter box trained. Do you have to do that on my carpet? I may need it again. We'll since I'm not having mouse for breakfast, this time, I'd better find Mom. Play nicely, you two."
That was odd. I almost felt sorry for Elise, just hunger, I thought. Then I blurted out. "I'm sorry, Elise. I didn't mean to be so rude."
"Paul, what are you doing?" Midnight demanded.
"For once, I didn't want to be a smug bastard."
I trotted downstairs to find a bowl of dog food set out on the kitchen floor. As far as my new nose was concerned it smelled delightful. I gulped down the meat and licked the bowl clean. Although foxes have a much better sense of smell than cats, and the vision is about the same, their sense of taste is no where near as sharp.
Mom walked into the kitchen, and gave me a sad smile. "The men from the zoo will be here shortly, and I expect no arguments from you. I suppose Midnight told you what he did to Elise?"
"Yes," I said with a shrug trying to sound neutral. "You look different," I added staring at her face and hair. For the first time in ages she wore her hair, blonde as straw, down over her shoulders. "You look younger, too."
"Since I won't have kids to worry about for a while, I might as well enjoy myself."
I curled up in the living room still not sure what to do with the piece of shag carpeting attached to my rear. It was easy enough to wag, and it tended to stick straight out when I ran, but I couldn't curl up with it.
The technician from the zoo turned up at noon. He came equipped with a large cage and a long pole with a noose on one end. "That won't be necessary," Mom said quickly. "She seems very friendly."
The man stared at me, curled up by Mom's feet. I pulled my lips back in a grin. "Where did you find her?"
"We didn't. She found us. My daughter left the door open last night for a moment and in walks a vixen, bold as all get out, and looking for food. Someone must have raised her as a pet, and I don't know if she just got out, or they let her go. But what are we going to do with a fox of all things."
I stood up, stretched and walked over to sniff the tech's hand. "Hello? I'm Paul." No response. I was afraid of that. Humans wouldn't understand my speech, and I would have no one to talk to for the next year.
In spite of the myriad of animal smells in the cage, I scratched the door open, walked inside, and settled back down. This time, the man stared at me with his mouth open. "Well. I'll be. I never dreamed it would be this easy. Ready to go, girl? I guess you are. Would you sign this -- uh -- Mrs.?"
"Jones, Melanie Jones, and it's Miss -- now."
"Yes, Miss Jones," he said and I could smell his interest in Mom.
"This is it for the year," I said. "Later, Mom."
The tech laughed. "You'd thing she was trying to talk. Come on, sweetheart, everyone at the zoo is waiting to meet you." He picked up the cage and carried me out to a large pickup truck with the zoo's logo on the door. He settled the cage on the front seat, and that was that.
This was not the way I hoped my life would go. The thought of being an exhibit for the next year did not thrill me, but then it sounded better right then than another year as a partial human.
I slept for the ride into town, but as the truck came to a stop at a red light I glanced around and sniffed frantically to find the source of a tantalizing scent. Of course, I spotted the sign and started whining then barking to get the tech's attention.
"What's the matter?" he asked as I made more and more noise.
I waved my right forepaw until he spotted the sign.
"'Kentucky Fried Chicken'?" He laughed and shook his head. "You're hungry?" This time I whined and spun around in the cage. "Miss Jones probably didn't know what to feed you. Okay." He turned on his signal, and prepared to go through the drive through.
"A bucket, please," he told the girl at the window. "My friend here is starving. I'll have a large Coke and she'll have water."
The girl stared at me from the window and laughed. "Oh, that's priceless. No one has ever brought a fox to this hen house before."
She laughed again then called out, "Hey, does anyone have a camera? The guy in window one has a fox who wants our chicken."
I heard several shouts of "You're kidding," before more faces appeared at the window.
"Looks like you get the seal of approval from a true expert," the tech said. "She's on her way to the zoo, but fussed so much as we drove by I had to pull in."
When the chicken came, the tech started to drive off until I waved to an empty picnic table. He got the idea, parked and set up for an early lunch. I opened the door of my cage and stood on top of the table without a single thought of running away.
"They don't get much smarter than you, do they, girl?" he said as he handed me a piece of chicken and gave me a water dish. I went for my second piece by shoving my head in the bucket and grabbing. I backed out with a leg in my mouth and I heard the click of a shutter. I looked around at the photographer, grinned with my mouth full, and settled down to eat. He took several more pictures.
"Oh, she's so cute. Can I pet her?" I looked up to see several kids standing by the table.
"No, and please stand back. You don't want to scare her. The little lady here is our newest exhibit at the zoo. You can see her there, but even though she's truly smarter than the average fox she can bite and bite hard." I opened my mouth to display my teeth. The kids took a step back as several more joined the crowd.
"As you can see foxes usually eat mice..." I grimaced and stuck out my tongue. The kids laughed as the tech went on. "But all foxes love chicken..." This time I nodded and pointed at the picture of the Colonel on the side of the bucket. Everyone applauded. "Although not all foxes insist on Kentucky Fried Chicken like this one."
By the time we reached the zoo the tech, whose name was John, talked to me like I was an old friend. He pulled into the lot behind the medical facility, and rushed me inside. "Doc? Doctor Conley? I've got a real winner here."
The vet, a much younger man than I expected, walked over to the cage. "She is gorgeous, John."
"But that's not the half of it Doc. Watch this. Girl, come out of the cage and say hello to Doctor Conley." I opened the cage door, walked over the to man and stuck out my right paw.
"Hi, Doc, glad to meet you. I haven't had any shots so lets get it over with, okay?" I said in a low growl.
"John, that was incredible. She figured out the lock by herself, and I never dreamed you were a ventriloquist."
"What do you mean?"
"That line about the shots was a good one. Okay, young lady, I'll make it quick."
"You heard me?" I asked, shocked. "That's great. I need a flea collar, too." I sat down and scratched my ear.
"No collars here, I'm afraid, but I'll get the powder after I give you an exam." I let him pet my head. "She really does seem tame enough."
"Yeah, you should have seen her with the kids at KFC. She was a real hit. The lady that found her thought she was someone's pet, and I believe it. I'd swear she understood everything we say."
"I'm sure. Okay John, I'll take it from here, but I'll call you if I need you. Thanks."
"Bye," I said after the tech. "I really like him. He can't understand me like you can, but I was able to get through. I was starved and he took me to see the Colonel. My name's Paul, by the way, or Paula now."
"Paula?" he managed to say. He turned pale, and felt around my neck for a collar or transmitter.
"Nope, it's really me, Dr. Conley." I flashed him a wide grin. "You've never met a talking fox before?"
"No, and this has to be some sort of trick."
"Yes, it is. Until yesterday I was supposed to be a cat, but my sister botched the spell and here I am. I have to be a fox for the next year."
"And what will be after that?"
"I don't know. If I get pregnant during this year I stay a fox. I want to go back to being a cat, but Mom wants me to be human again. It's a long story."
"I'll bet. We have time."
I stood up on my hind legs, rested my fore paws on the man's chest and pulled a pen from his pocket. I ran over to an open notebook, flipped the pages until I found a blank, then I wrote my name. It was difficult holding the pen in my mouth and harder moving my head to form the letters, but I did it.
"See?" I asked. "A transmitter could make it sound like I was talking, and there might even be a visual if you held up a page for me to read, but how many foxes can be taught that?"
"I see. But I don't understand."
"I was born human. I'm fourteen and until last night I was a boy named Paul. My mother and sister are witches in the local coven - just keep looking at that page when you don't believe me..." I told him the rest of my story.
"That's about it," I said at the end. "I'm here now because Mom doesn't want a fox in the house, but she does want me to be a witch when the lady changes me back next year."
Dr. Conley shook his head as he checked my temperature. "You want me to believe all this? Every test tells me you're a normal fox."
"Yes, I do want you to believe me." I said, surprised. "Yesterday I wouldn't have cared, but... But how else can you explain a fox that can read and write?"
"I want to, but you grew up with the magic, Paul -- or do you prefer Paula now?"
I shook my head. "Better make it Paula."
"But for me to believe that there are real live witches that can cast spells and turn people into cats or foxes is hard. What is it like?"
"For me the change to human was a demotion. I grew up as a cat, and cats are the true lords of the universe. I never did get used to walking on two feet, or wearing clothes, and I never stopped using a litter box, which reminds me. I need one, and that flea powder."
Dr. Conley put me down on the floor and pointed out the paper as the phone rang. "Hello? Speaking. Yes, I am and I have the fox here. Her name is Paula, and I'm not sure that's such a good idea right now. Hold on, and I'll ask her. It's the people from Kentucky Fried Chicken. "They want you back on for a promotion. You were a hit."
"Do I get free chicken?"
"Yes, and quite a bit of money for the zoo. She wanted to know if she gets chicken out of the deal. Yes, I do talk to my animals all the time. No, she isn't on display yet. We just got her in. Since she seems willing..." I nodded my head and tried not to drool. "I'll have to talk to the zoo administrators and they can work out a schedule.
"Thanks and I'll tell her that. You would be surprised as to what animals do understand, especially this one." He hung up. "Everyone loved you and word is getting around.
"I would just love to see the expression on those people's faces if I... Or get this," he said with a laugh. "Picture me in front a convention of vets and I introduce you as the world's smartest fox. I'd ask you to do a few simple tricks, then I'd ask you to add two plus two. You'd pound out four with your paw. Then I'd ask you to subtract 16 from 31. You'd shake your head and write out the problem on a blackboard. They'd go crazy over that."
"Yeah, we'd both be famous." I said with a loud bark. "When can we start?"
"It's something to think about. We'd have to be careful. Most scientists have a tendency to take apart things they don't understand, and they would want to dissect your brain -- in the name of science, of course. Let's just leave it at entertaining the kids at KFC for the moment."
"Right," I said as he picked me up and carried me over to the sink for the flea powder. "Now about my cage. I don't mind having all those people watch me, but is there anyway I could get a radio or mini-TV for my den?"
"Don't worry, you can use the set at home. In good conscience I can't just stick you out with the other fox. I'm sure he'd love it, but we don't have a separate cage for you. Would you like to meet him?"
"Sure, but I'm going home with you? That's the best news I've had for a while. I make a great pet, doc, and we can work on our act."
Someone knocked on the door. Another technician stuck his head inside. "Dr. Conley? There are a bunch of people here to see you. Mostly moms and kids but they're asking about the new fox."
"The price of fame, I suppose." Dr. Conley said quickly. "Have them meet me at the lecture hall in a few minutes."
"I don't want a lot of babies hitting me and tugging my tail, doc. I won't bite, or I won't break the skin at least, but."
"I won't let them near you except one at a time. Okay? And if we meet them in the lecture hall there will be a feeling of distance between us and them. Come along. I'll give you the grand tour along the way."
The stares we collected on the way were priceless. Dr. Conley made no effort to hide his conversation with me as we passed the zoo's cafeteria and quarantine facility.
"It's okay." he said at one point. "I always talk to the animals here."
The lecture hall sounded full as we entered through the back way. Dr. Conley motioned for me to stay put before he walked out into the hall. "Good afternoon," he said approaching the podium. "I am Dr. Justin Conley. I am the chief Vet for the Downtown zoo, and I believe you are here about our latest addition?"
"We want to see the fox," I heard several kids say.
"Of course. Our new fox is a female, named Paula, but since she just came in today, we have to do a lot of tests and keep her quarantined to make sure that she will not infect any of our other animals with something."
I strolled out on stage and sat down at Dr. Conley's feet. He stared down at me. "I thought I told you to stay in the lab for tests." I shook my head.
"You followed me all the way here?" This time I nodded my head and gave the audience a wide grin.
"You came to say hello to the boys and girls?" I shook my head harder and most of the kids laughed.
"As you can see, foxes are very clever animals but they never listen and they never do what they are told. In the wild foxes hunt mice." Once again I stuck out my tongue and made a face.
"I know you prefer your chicken fried but most foxes don't have fast food restaurants. They use their wits and not the zoo's money." I opened my mouth and barked. "Okay, that's using your wits, too.
"Foxes have very sharp noses." I patted my nose with a paw. "Yes, and it is large enough for everyone to see." By this time the entire hall was cracking up. "And their ears are almost as sharp." I turned my head and waggled my ears.
"That's excellent, Paula, now can you whistle 'Dixie'?" I tried to pucker my lips and blow, but shook my head. That did it. We were a hit. I let one child at a time come up and pat me. The odd thing was that I liked being petted. In fact, I wanted more of it.
Over the next few weeks as we gave lectures at the zoo, and KFC, our audience grew. I saw my picture several times in the local papers. I settled into Dr. Conley's house, and thought he must have had a reputation for being a little wacko -- at least none of his neighbors thought anything of seeing the vet walking a fox.
Although he offered to let me use a bed at night, I found it much more comfortable to sleep in a basket or on the sofa for late night TV, until the night Midnight came to visit, that is.
"What are you doing here?" The cat appeared after his voice.
I jumped down from the sofa to give him a good licking. He refused. "I live here now."
"So I gathered. Your mother wanted you to be a fox in the zoo and not some celebrity pet."
"You really want me to sleep in a cage with a male fox?"
"No, but you could keep a low profile. Every witch in town knows who you are."
I shrugged, and gave him a wide grin. "What are they going to do? Spill the beans?"
"Can Mistress Hildegard break this spell before the year is up?"
"No," Midnight said with a slow shake of his head.
"Then tell Mom I'm going to get by the best as I can as a fox, and she has nothing to say about it. I'm even doing the network news tomorrow -- Fox, of course."
"Your mother will not like that at all. Just a warning."
"She'd cast a spell at me against the Lady's wishes? Tell Mom that there is no way I am ever going back to her. I like being a fox, even more than being a cat. After all, I'm a star. And I will get real cozy with the other fox. I won't live with him, but I'll have a litter of kits in a heartbeat rather than going back to Mom. That isn't a threat."
"You have changed, Paul, a lot. I'm not sure if I like it, but I'll pass the word back."
"Thanks, and Dr. Conley is putting a doggy door in the kitchen if you want to go hunting again." He flicked his tail in a sign I thought meant he wouldn't be back.
"How is Elise?"
"You really care about her? I let her go. She's a full time mouse now, in her own little cage with a wheel and everything. See you." With that, he was gone.
I woke up again to the glimmer of magic light in the living room. It was still dark, probably around two in the morning. I yawned and waited until my mother took shape in the light.
"How dare you threaten me, young lady. You would rather have a litter of kits than come home. You're asking for it this time."
"Mom, please, you'll wake Doc Conley. It's his house you're invading this morning."
"How do you think I feel seeing you on the TV as some sort of performing animal. All my friends have called about it. They think you're cute, but I've never been so humiliated in my life. You think you can get away with this?"
"Mom, it's not your fault I'm a fox, or mine either, but I'm not going to sit around in a cage for the next year playing stupid. I'm having a great time. Kids love me. KFC loves me and for the first time in ages I like me, too. I'm making a mint for the zoo, and I get all the fried chicken I can eat."
"And you think this is more important than my feelings?"
I nodded and licked my lips. "Chicken is more important than anything now, Mom, and besides. You've never cared one little bit about my feelings, or me in general. You never really cared one bit about Elise either. All you do care about is impressing your coven."
"May I ask what is going on out here?" Dr. Conley stood in his bedroom doorway wearing a bathrobe. "Hello, may I help you?"
"Doc, this is my Mom -- Melanie. Mom, this is Dr. Conley, the chief vet at the zoo and my agent."
"So, you are the one that is doing this to my daughter. When I gave her over to the zoo I never expected her to be exploited like this."
"Mrs. Jones, is it? I understand the unique situation Paula is in for the next year, but this has been her idea."
"Perhaps you would like to join her as a talking weasel?"
"Mrs. Jones, you are the one that came barging into my house this late at night to fight with my fox after all. I've always wanted to know what it would be like to be an animal, but."
Mom started chanting. I felt the power gather around her until silver light sparkled at her fingertips. I jumped off the sofa and bit her right on the leg. She screamed and kicked, but the spell broke apart.
"You little brat. How dare you? So, you want to be a real fox? Find out what it's like without any human memories or intelligence." She pointed at me, and spoke a single word of power. I shuddered as the spell washed over me.
"Paula?" Dr. Conley asked. I barked a couple of times although I did manage to turn my head and wink at him.
"As for you, Dr. Conley." Mom started to say, then gasped as red fur grew in on her hands.
"Mom?" I sniffed. "Looks like I'm not the only vixen here. Mom?"
"Melanie," I heard the Lady's voice from far away. "Have you forgotten that this child is under my protection? Have you forgotten the rules of magic. It's not something you play with and spells are never to be cast when you are angry or emotionally stressed. You told that to Elise often enough.
"Now," she said and appeared in the room. "I will give you the same choice as I gave Paula. You will be a real fox, with no human intelligence or memories, but if you can go the year without mating as a fox, I will turn you back to yourself."
Mom said nothing as her change progressed. She made a beautiful vixen, but the moment her change finished she panicked at the human scent and ran to find a place to hide. She would not tolerate my presence. To her, I was a rival, and even though I was in the proper shape, I couldn't speak fox.
"I'll call John in the morning," Dr. Conley said. She will make a good exhibit for the zoo."
The next morning I woke up feeling much better. I barked at finding a young and very male fox curled up on the sofa with me. "Good morning, sweetheart," he said. "I hope you don't mind but I took the liberty of moving right in."
"Who else? You were promised to me after all, and I intend to collect one way or another. I'm no one's familiar now, and it's not too late, kid. We always did make a great team, and now I know the perfect woods to dig a den and raise a family."
"Are you out of your mind? You think I'm going to sleep in a hole in the ground and raise my kits out in the woods? And give up show business? Not a chance, buster. We'd better get this straight right now. I'll go hunting with you, but if you want to live like some sort of animal find yourself another vixen."
"Girls." he said. "I'll never ever figure you out."
"No, you won't and don't forget it." I curled back up on the sofa and closed my eyes. I would be a fox for the rest of my life now, but I was satisfied that I had made the right choice.